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The Tish and the Thanksgiving Table

In a scene in Avalon, Barry Levinson’s cinematic memoir of growing up in Baltimore with his Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents, Uncle Gabriel Krichinsky, brilliantly played by Lou Jacobi, arrives—late, as usual—for the extended Krichinsky family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner and sees that the meal has begun without him.  He reacts to this violation of the established order with a hysterical tantrum, uttering what have been called the “best Thanksgiving movie lines, ever”: “You cut da toikey widdout me?  Vot?  You couldn’t vait?  Your own flesh and blood—you cut da toikey!”

Relevant Links
Holy Kugel  Allan Nadler, Food and Judaism (Studies in Jewish Civilization). On the sanctification of Ashkenazic ethnic foods in Hasidism, and particularly the potato or noodle pudding known as kugel.  

Still incensed, Uncle Gabriel storms out of the house and, from the sidewalk, delivers his final, righteous halakhic ruling: “You gotta vait until every relative is der, before da toikey is cut!  I’ve said enough!”  And off he drives, his indignation testifying to the way Thanksgiving, uniquely among non-Jewish festivals, has been adopted, with its food and rituals cherished, by American Jews.  While parochial debates still linger about the propriety of Jews celebrating this secular feast, they are limited to the ultra-Orthodox fringe.

It’s different in Canada, where Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday only in 1957.  In my native Montreal, few Jews celebrated it; our French Quebecois neighbors saw it as an Anglophone artifice of recent vintage, hardly appropriate for the proud, pure laine descendants of Quebec's revered founding fathers.  I fondly recall the utter novelty, when I was a graduate student in Boston, of my very first Thanksgiving dinner—not least because it took place in the Orthodox home of a new American friend who had just completed his rabbinical studies under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.  It was that greatest of Modern Orthodox sages who endorsed the celebration of Thanksgiving with a festive meal.  In subsequent years, in New York, I shared many a Thanksgiving dinner with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s own son, the talmudic scholar Haym Soloveitchik. 

For many American Jews, observance of Thanksgiving is more than merely permissible; it has evolved into something quasi-sacred.  There have been numerous discussions of the inherent “Jewishness” of the holiday.  Some are serious, including analysis of a Puritan document that cites rabbinic laws mandating expressions of gratitude.  Others are silly, like the etymological claim that the modern Hebrew term for turkey, basar hodu, is rooted in the Hebrew verb for giving thanks, l’hodot (as in the Hallel prayer, hodu la-shem ki tov).   

Such speculation aside, it is a matter of historical record that when President Washington and the U.S. Congress first proclaimed November 26, 1789 as a national day of thanksgiving, America’s Jews followed their religious leaders in embracing, celebrating, and even sanctifying it.  America’s first native-born Jewish preacher, Hazan Gershom Seixas-Mendes Mendes Seixas of Manhattan’s Spanish and Portuguese Congregation Shearith Israel, actually fashioned a special Shaharit service for America’s first day of thanksgiving, beginning with five special psalms and concluding with Adon Olam.  The service included Mendes Seixas’ passionately patriotic sermon praising God for delivering “our nation” from British rule; the sermon made such an impression that it was published within weeks of its delivery.

Just shy of a century later, after President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving an annual national holiday in 1863, the most prominent Reform rabbi of the American North, David Einhorn, delivered a powerful Thanksgiving Day sermon in Philadelphia’s largest temple, Knesseth Israel, analogizing the enslavement of America’s blacks to the historic suffering of the Jews since their enslavement in Egypt.  Einhorn began his homily with American patriotism, describing the day as “appointed by the President of the United States . . . to be observed by the loyal portion of the land.”  But he concluded on a distinctively Jewish note: “Bless Israel, imbue it with a spirit of devotion and thankfulness towards this land, the first that broke the chains its children wore for centuries.”

Perhaps the fact that Thanksgiving’s central observance is a festive and abundant meal with increasingly ritualized elements—akin to the Passover seder’s shulhan arukh, a table set according to sacred custom—has also attracted American Jews to the holiday.  In 2010 the American Jewish Committee published America’s Table: A Thanksgiving Reader, an interfaith booklet that clearly resembles, in form if not content, the Passover Haggadah. 

But what of those Hasidim who do not partake of the Thanksgiving table? 

These Jews have their own table, though very few American Jews have ever heard of, let alone attended, it: the rebbe’s Sabbath tish (Yiddish for table), the most sacralized feast in the history of Judaism, with bizarre, mystically infused customs and ritually sanctified foods.  The tish, conducted on Friday evenings and before dusk on Saturday, during the seudah sh’lishit or third meal, is among the most central and enduring religious rituals in Hasidic life.  

Hasidic lore attributes the origin of the tish to Hasidism’s putative founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the “Besht.”  According to the hagiographical collection Shivhei haBesht (Praises of the Besht), the Baal Shem Tov would gather with his small circle of disciples for Sabbath and festival meals.  Sources that depict the activities of the Hasidim in the generation following the death of the Besht in 1760 provide more elaborate evidence of such sacred gatherings.  An embryonic form of today’s Hasidic tish certainly took place in the very first organized Hasidic “court”—that of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, revered as the “Great Maggid” (preacher)—just a decade before the first American Thanksgiving.  The Great Maggid’s court serves to this day as a socio-religious model for most Hasidic communities (Chabad is an exception). 

However, what began as a genuinely communal meal, a repast the Hasidim shared fully with their master, over time became elevated (or degenerated, depending on one’s perspective) into a highly structured sacrament in which the Rebbe increasingly took the role of priest rather than dinner host.  Only he consumed a full meal; after he did so, he ritualistically distributed minute portions of leftovers, shirayim, to his followers.  Today, the high point of the Hasid's pilgrimage to his Rebbe's court is the opportunity to sit at the Rebbe’s table, hear his recitation of the kiddush, intently observe his every holiness-infused movement, listen to his teachings and, most important, participate in the sacrament of the Rebbe-sanctified shirayim.

The change occurred for complex reasons, mainly the decline of Hasidism’s early populist spirit and the growing elitism of its leadership.  Most important was a growing consensus that the doctrine of avodah b’gashmiyut—serving God by sanctifying material pleasures—was fraught with danger and, thus, required, for its safe exercise, the kind of mystical prowess possessed only by the tsadikim, the holy Hasidic leaders.  According to common Hasidic belief rooted in earlier kabbalistic doctrine, only the Rebbe has the power to sanctify the food he eats, by engaging in theurgic activity that separates the inherent and essential sparks of holiness in all created materials, food among them, from their corporeal matter.  And only after he has sanctified the food can he share it in a diffused manner with his followers by, quite literally, throwing them some crumbs, namely the shirayim.

Similarly, although the general idea of elevating food to its divine source through sacred eating was well developed by the time of the 16th-century schools of Cordoveran and Lurianic Kabbalah, Hasidism popularized this kabbalistic concept and gave it concrete expression in the rituals of the tish, that communalized a previously esoteric and socially restricted mystical practice.  One aspect of this popularization was to apply the earlier theories very concretely to specific items on the rebbe's Sabbath and festival menu.  Using a variety of startling hermeneutic devices, Hasidic exegetes assigned particular mystical significations to such distinctly east European Jewish foods as kugel, lokshen, gefilte fish, farfel, and kishke.    

To this day, each Hasidic sect maintains distinct, if minute, variations, depending on its place of origin in eastern Europe, regarding the items on the ornate, super-sized silver platter placed before the Rebbe, always in a spirit of fearful reverence.  Certain delicacies, however, are common to all, most notably kugel and fish.  The kugel, the single culinary item most distinctive to all Jews of Eastern Europe, is associated in Hasidic lore with the kabbalistic orb of yesod, the source of human procreation.  Moreover, according to Hasidic doctrine, the kugel’s traditionally round shape (in one etymology the word is derived from the Hebrew ke’igul, “as a circle”) symbolizes the divine presence pervading the world.

As for the fish, an old kabbalistic tradition deems the fish the holiest of God’s creatures.  Its perpetually open eyes are said to symbolize God’s unceasing providence.  Thus, Hasidic literature records many strange customs surrounding the eyeballs of the massive fish presented to the Rebbe at the tish.  Some rebbes consumed the eyeballs first; others placed them in the pockets of their kapotehs, or caftans.  It is not the most appetizing image, but it well captures the surreal, mystical atmosphere permeating this uniquely Hasidic religious observance.

Uncle Gabriel ruled, "you gotta vait."  And the Hasidim do wait patiently, sometimes for hours, for their rebbes’ arrival at the tish.  But once the proceedings are under way, any semblance of table etiquette is quickly thrown to the winds.  I was 16 the first time I attended a Hasidic tish, held during a visit to Montreal by the Viznitser Rebbe of Bnei Brak.  The Rebbe ate a few bites of the massive carp presented to him, then pushed the silver platter to his shames—attendant—for the distribution of shirayim.  The Hasidim surged, pushing and shoving their way towards the shames for their chance at the carp.  In the melee, with the shames upended, the platter was overturned, and the carp landed on the shul’s far-from-pristine floor.  But the hundreds of Hasidim kept grabbing for their morsels of sanctified fish like pigeons fighting for crumbs on a New York sidewalk.

It was not exactly an American Thanksgiving.  But, then, the Hasidim were celebrating not only America but the creation of the very cosmos—in the words of the Sabbath kiddush, zekher l’maaseh b’reishit.  No wonder their frenzied determination.

Allan Nadler is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Jewish Studies at Drew University, and has recently been appointed rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Montreal, Quebec. 

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Mark Jay Mirsky on November 21, 2012 at 9:30 am (Reply)
You may be interested, in regard to the New England roots of Thanksgiving, which center on the Plymouth Colony, that Bradford, one of its first governors, though without a formal university education, mastered a large Hebrew vocabulary. My father, in the Massachusetts Legislature during the late 1940's, and 1950's, found in the State Library's copy of Bradford's journal, a Hebrew-English dictionary that the governor had proudly compiled. Samuel Eliot Morrison, the Harvard historian who published a critical edition of Bradford's journal brushed off my father's queries as to why the scholar had not mentioned the dictionary.
Jews and Hebrew speakers, however, can sit down to their turkey with the satisfaction of knowing that the original Thanksgiving meal, sanctified in Massachusetts myth, probably had a Hebrew benediction spoken over the "Toikey."
Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman on November 21, 2012 at 10:06 am (Reply)
Rabbi Nadler has done as he does in his book an excellent job. I too come from Canada,not Montreal but Toronto. After moving to the United States I too had to learn and have come to enjoy truly the Thanksgiving celebration and its significance to American and American Jews. My wife is from Buffalo so I was introduced to thanksgiving even before moving to the States. The material on the beginning of the Tisch is most informative and its use in hassidism most helpful ( I have been at a number of tisches , in Toronto, in New York and in Yerushalayim) . i didn't see any reference to the Hatan's Tisch here but will look for it i Nadler's book. The best connection is that Lou Jacobi (Yakobovitch) was a cousin on the maternal side.I have used the scene in classes and lectures and sermons as a description of the end of the extended family as American jews became suburbanized, have a joyous Thanksgiving.
David Levavi on November 21, 2012 at 11:33 am (Reply)
Thanksgiving translates to eucharist in Greek. The Puritan Thanksgiving was a Eucharist feast or Communion. Native Americans shared in the Communion but God, not the Indians, was being thanked.

Communion is a (human) sacrificial rite invented by Saul of Tarsus in imitation of the Jewish (Passover) Kiddush (hallowing; blessing). The Host (Body or flesh of Christ) is the matzoh (unleavened bread). The wine (the sacrificial blood of Christ in St. Paul's new Christian rite) is one of the four Passover (Last Supper) cups.

The Puritans were the most highly evolved of Christians. They lived virtually as Orthodox Jews. Their Sabbath was celebrated on Sunday in the Roman manner (the Sunday Sabbath was originally a "borrowing" by the Romans from the Jews to honor Helios or Sol Invictus). But the Puritans kept the Sabbath Day holy in the manner of Orthodox Jews. The Puritan chulent (Sabbath stew; Boston baked beans) was tref but the Puritans ate it on Sunday in order not to cook on the Sabbath.

"Puritan" Christians, like "Orthodox" Jews were so named by their enemies. Both were (are) minute minorities slandered for their piety and seen for backward, freakish and joyless. Personal diaries left by Puritans reveal the very opposite. Puritans like Orthodox Jews lived full, rich lives in accordance with scripture. They were a happy (little) nation, joyous in its celebrations.

For contemporary American Jews at large, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder that our comfort here in America is owed to these English Christian Congregationalists who were persecuted by the English Crown and the Anglican Church and driven from their homeland to find a New Jerusalem across the ocean. The Puritan Ethic is the Jewish Ethic. As long as the Puritan Ethic remains at the heart of American culture, our happiness in America is assured.

Observant Jews, orthodox and Conservative, need to recognize that Thanksgiving is the unique kiddush we share with Christians. No small thing when you consider that participation in kiddush is where the Jerusalem Church, the family, talmidim and chasidim of the Christian Christ, all of them kosher Jews, drew the line against the Pauline Church of Saul and his Gentile followers. Thanksgiving opens the Gentile Gate.
    Nick Bunker on November 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm (Reply)
    Dear David,

    Again - you're absolutely right!

    As a British Anglican, I agree with you entirely.

    Have you noticed the similarities between the Birkat Hagomel, and the thanksgiving prayers of the early settlers in New England?

    very best, Nick Bunker
Nick Bunker on November 21, 2012 at 2:51 pm (Reply)
Dear Mark,

Yes, indeed!

For more details of Bradford's Hebrew studies, and their relevance to the Mayflower, please see my book Making Haste From Babylon, published by Knopf in 2010.

Nick Bunker, Lincoln, England
    DM on November 23, 2012 at 9:04 am (Reply)
    Unlike the Boston Puritans, the Plymouth Separatists did not believe in fixed prayer, and based their worship on text study, spontaneous prayer, and psalm singing. Their teacher in Amsterdam was the great Hebraist Henry Ainsworth, and Plymouth boasted multiple copies of his great (English) Humash, whose notes include vast quantities of Rashi and other commentators and large excerpts from Maimonides' Mishneh Torah. Ainsworth, who had gone into exile in Holland in the 1690s, was also the translator/annotator of the Pilgrims' psalm book. With so many and extensive notes on practical, linguistic, and philosophical topics, avilable to them, there is no doubt that the names and ideas of the Rambam and others were familiar to them, almost certainly more so than to the Sephardic Jews who showed up in Manhattan in 1654.

    William Bradford and Elder Brewster both studied Hebrew: understanding Jewish commentators was considered the key to comprehending community life and thought and correctly interpreting the biblical text in early Christian times, before Catholicism as they believed falsified and perverted the historical record.

    Deanna Mirsky
    Newton, Massachusetts
Mark Jay Mirsky on November 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm (Reply)
Nick, I am delighted to know about your book and will happily order it. We have a cottage in the northermost part of Plymouth County during the summer, a point that my father was particularly proud of, Hull, Mass., a place founded by a protestant minister who was driven out of the Plymouth Colony after landing there uninvited from Ireland, for sexual misconduct. With several of his followers he was forced to row north in a small boat, after having to run a gauntlet whacked on the flanks with musket stocks, until they landed on our peninsula. What Thanksgiving they celebrated goes unrecorded as do the specifics of Merry Mount where the Indians and English pranced around the maypole during the spring season.
Would be happy to exchange information directly with you.

David Levavi on November 23, 2012 at 2:43 pm (Reply)
I am not familiar with birkhat ha ‘gomel and no, I have not read your book. But my wife printed out a sample chapter. Delightful reading. She ordered a copy from Amazon immediately. Congratulations! You have just participated in Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving which we Americans mark, as we do all holidays, with sales.

Ah, that good ole Puritan Ethic. Now begins the unceasing 24/7 jingling of sleigh bells and cash registers counting down to the birthday of the Christ.

Belated thanks to your ancestors for their contribution to the founding of Harvard. My oldest, a Bible scholar, took her doctorate there recently (with distinction if dad be allowed to brag.)
Mark Jay Mirsky on December 27, 2012 at 12:52 am (Reply)
Dear Nick,

I read your book, enjoyed it and recommended it to others. One point however, puzzled me. Bradford notes that Lyford when he was driven out of Plymouth, first went to Nantasco (Nantasket or Hull) and only then on to Namkeke or Salem. The Massachusetts WPA Guide reports that he was one of the first settlers there with Oldham and Roger Conant. I confess that as a long-time summer resident of Nantasket I have always felt that he set the tone of the place.
I believe I read elsewhere that the Pilgrims did not, at first, understand the value of the fishing grounds, and the supply of cod.
Do you think Bradford simply copied out the Hebrew words from his books, or actually learned and possibly used them? It might be interesting to examine his list and ask how it might have derived from his study of the Bible.


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